This post originally appeared on Impatient Optimists, the blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Back in 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Hillsborough County, Florida, school system a $100 million grant to revamp teacher evaluation. The Empowering Effective Teachers Initiative (EET) resulted in a massive overhaul of how we view teaching and learning in the nation’s eighth largest district.

Two years later, we were thirteen teacher leaders.  We traversed Tampa’s rush hour one evening in May 2011, excited to meet each other as the newest of five national New Millennium Initiative (NMI) teams convened by the Center for Teaching Quality.  NMI’s goal: advance the teaching profession by mobilizing the expertise of teacher leaders. Passionate about the recent changes in our district and their national ramifications, we quickly chose EET as our first project.

What have we learned together in Tampa?  What can we share with districts rethinking their own evaluation systems? Hillsborough County NMI has released “Reflections on EET: Identifying Successes, Recommending Opportunities for Improvement,” a multimedia presentation reflecting on the early lessons Hillsborough County teachers have learned from our EET experiences.

The authors of this report analyze the evaluation process Hillsborough created, reflect on its strengths, and recommend specific areas for improvement. We’re helping our own district refine EET.  Now our findings can help other districts craft systems for developing, evaluating, and supporting teachers.

Here are three early takeaways from our experiences with EET:

1. We see teachers as solutions, not problems.

Throughout the report, you can listen to podcasts of teacher leaders reflecting on EET. Hillsborough NMI teachers believe districts should consider a comprehensive professional development system where teachers “continually hone [their] practice” and “effective teachers are part of solutions.”  We see EET as a vehicle “not intended for punishment but rather for ongoing growth and development.”

This means EET is more than just an evaluation system to hold teachers accountable for student achievement.  It is evolving to allow us to reflect on our practices, analyze how our pedagogy aligns with a rubric, and discuss next steps with evaluators.  Gone are the old checklists.  EET is a living, breathing system that invites the feedback of its nearly 15,000 teachers.

We recommend clear lines of communication exist between district leadership and teachers.  In Hillsborough County, this is improving.  Each school selects a teacher to serve as an EET Liaison to the district, offering rubric coaching and sharing teacher concerns with the district.  This communication resulted in three major changes last spring: teachers impacted rubric language, the weight of a principal’s evaluation, and the notice required for peer observations.

2. Teachers and their evaluators must build trusting relationships with each other.

We understand that real conversations about teaching and learning cannot take place without trust between teacher and evaluator.  So how might districts nurture these relationships, thereby driving student achievement?

Hillsborough County developed a three-part cycle: pre-conference, observation, post-conference.  This involves a cadre of highly trained peer evaluators and mentor teachers.  These evaluators, accomplished teachers selected to serve 2 – 3-year terms outside of the classroom, conduct multiple observations of teachers each year.  The visits are bracketed by pre- and post-conferences designed to foster real discussions about lessons and next steps.  Mentor teachers who work with first- and second-year teachers visit much more often, building rapport with their mentees, modeling lessons, and coaching.  As a result, new teacher retention in Hillsborough County climbed from 72% to 86% after one year.

Several NMI members have written more in-depth pieces on this part of the EET model.  Paul Goodland, a peer evaluator, and Rob Kriete, a middle school language arts teacher, interview each other in a recent SEEN Magazine article.  Another peer evaluator, Sarah Fish, considers how observing hundreds of teachers might improve her teaching upon her return to the classroom in this Impatient Optimists post.

These pieces echo our suggestion in “Reflections” that districts allocate real time to the pre- and post-conferences.  These should be two-way discussions where teachers can leave with action steps and resources.  This emphasizes the mentorship potential of evaluators, not just heavy-handed ratings.

3. Use multiple measures that are transparent and authentic.

We appreciate that, in EET, multiple tools comprise teacher evaluation scores, including peer and principal evaluations, test scores, and an evolving value-added model.  Yet we understand that like athletes, teachers deserve more transparent measures to account for “a season’s worth of statistics.”

Great teachers don’t grade students without carefully explaining their measures.  Neither should districts judge teachers using standardized test or value-added data if it is ambiguous, unreliable, or offers little insight into how a teacher might improve.

The use of teacher portfolios including student artifacts and detailed reflections mirroring the National Board Certification process could really add authenticity to a teacher’s development.  That authenticity must include all teachers, not just those easily measurable by core subjects.  As I write this, Hillsborough County is using newly developed rubrics to evaluate elective teachers, media specialists, and guidance counselors.

Our Best Advice?

Hillsborough County, like many other districts, faces the clichéd task of building the ship while sailing it.  This process has been painstaking, and at times, painful.  Hillsborough NMI’s “Reflections” leaves districts with these process-related musts:

  • Roll out slowly.
  • Involve teachers in each step of the process.
  • Work out the kinks before attaching compensation models or widespread staffing policies.

While “Reflections” details many specific solutions, its power lies in the honest experiences of its 13 authors.  We embrace accountability and want to be our best for students.  We also want to help innovative leaders put these suggestions into action everywhere.  Check out the full report here.

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